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Sunday 7 June 2009

The Democratic Deficit - 1

Here’s a straight question, one much asked in the current political climate: is Pa Broon an unelected Prime Minister? Here’s an equally straight answer: no he isn’t. I will explain.

Unlike the USA, where the President is directly elected, the UK does not elect a Prime Minister. At a General Election, we elect MPs on a constituency basis: these overwhelmingly stand on the platform of one or other of the major parties. Following that election, it is customary for the leader of the victorious party to become Prime Minister. Therefore, at the previous General Election, Tony Blair, as leader of the Labour Party, went to see the Queen. He became Prime Minister.

The first majority Labour Government almost bucked this trend: there were moves to replace Clem Attlee after the 1945 landslide, but they were too late. By the time the plotters had made their decision, Attlee was motoring over to see the King, and he then formed the subsequent Government as Prime Minister.

But what about changing PM during the course of a Parliament? Once again, there is nothing that dictates the need for a General Election – after all, that election does not elect the PM. A look at the UK in the 1930s illustrates this. The National Government of 1931 was headed by Ramsay MacDonald, but he was increasingly a figurehead, and the real power was with Stanley Baldwin. After the following election, in 1935, Baldwin did indeed take over as PM, but retired in 1937, the vacancy being filled by Neville Chamberlain. No General Election was needed, nor was there any clamour for one.

When Chamberlain stepped down in 1940 in favour of Churchill, that was the third PM of the 1935 Parliament, although the wartime emergency had to be considered. There have been cases since: Eden gave way to Macmillan in 1957 and the latter did not go to the country for another two years, Macmillan himself went in 1963 and his successor, Alec Douglas Home, waited until the last minute before submitting himself to the voters. John Major also waited until the last minute in 1992. None of these Prime Ministers was less than legitimate.

What makes Gordon Brown any different? The answer is that nothing makes his case significantly different to those who have gone before. We don’t elect our PM through the ballot box; therefore any suggestion that he is “unelected” is pure drivel.

If Brown were to stand down, would his successor have to call a General Election? The straightforward answer is no, they wouldn’t. They may, however, wish to do so, but would be under no compulsion. As ever, the calling of such an election before the end of the five year maximum would be in the PM’s gift.

There does, however, have to be a General Election by next May.

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